Artillery: Anchoring the Line at Stones River

The Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862 – January 2, 1863) is known as a significant moment for Federal artillery. Most accounts focus on the 57 guns overlooking McFadden’s Ford on January 2, 1863. But a cluster of Federal guns also anchored the last Federal line on New Year’s Eve 1862. They contributed just as much to the Federal victory.

I describe their contribution in this excerpt from The Stones River and Tullahoma Campaigns: This Army Does Not Retreat. The action picks up about noon on December 31, as Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee sweeps forward to attack the final line of William S. Rosecrans’ Federal Army of the Cumberland along the Nashville Pike. Artillery stood on the hill were the Stones River National Cemetery is now located, facing a cedar forest a half mile away.

   Meanwhile Bragg’s men came up against the final Federal line. In the center, Stewart’s command reached the edge of the cedars. Federal artillery opened on the Confederate infantry. “For some time we were exposed to a terrific fire of shell, canister, and spherical case,” recalled Stewart. “Having no battery of our own, and being nearly out of ammunition, it was impossible to proceed farther.” Stewart’s requests for artillery support were unavailing, and he had to be content with skirmishing in the field. “It is believed that if a battery could have been put in position . . . the enemy could have been shelled from their shelter in the ravine [roadbed] and behind the railroad, and the day might thus have been more completely ours,” lamented an officer of the 19th Tennessee.

   Off to Stewart’s left, McCown’s tired division summoned one last effort to reach the pike. Rains’ shattered brigade rallied to the rear, but Ector’s and McNair’s commands pressed ahead. Rosecrans personally led the Pioneer Brigade against them, supported by elements of Rousseau’s division. “No time was now to be lost, as the enemy had evidently made this their last stand-point, and opened on us with artillery and musketry,” reported Colonel Harper. General McCown launched the two brigades into a headlong charge toward the Federal line.

   “The enemy’s lines, with banners flying, came in sight on the verge of the timber, within 500 yards of our battery,” recalled Lieutenant Alanson J. Stevens of Battery B, Pennsylvania Light Artillery. “We opened on them with spherical case, shell, and canister.” “As they move forward it looks as if there was no withstanding their advance,” noted an Ohio infantryman. General Ector remembered the effect of the Union shelling: “The cedars were falling and being trimmed by bombs, canister, and iron hail, which seemed to fill the air.” The Confederate infantry pushed to within 50 yards of the pike, but the Federal fire proved too much. “After ten or twelve minutes of the severest fighting it has ever been my lot to witness we were compelled to fall back with very heavy loss,” said Colonel Harper. McCown’s men rallied and took up a defensive position in the woods. Rosecrans’ center was safe.

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